This is the fourth article in our series, “Here I am. Send me!” We learn in Isaiah 6 that only after the prophet is totally convicted of his own sin and failures, met by God’s perfect love and might, can he go forth as a true servant. This is nothing new to us in ministry. We see daily how the Lord has used our past trials, our insufferable weakness, to allow His strength to shine forth in our work. In this series, we’ve asked a few courageous souls to tell us how their particular hardships have prepared them perfectly as servants of the Lord. Read the third article here.
It is easy to talk about the need to take risks as a demonstration that our faith is in God and not in ourselves. We teach and preach that to our students, but do we practice it in our own ministry?
Over the last few years I realized that I’d been stuck in a ministry-rut, the pastoral equivalent of the status quo: high school youth group on Sundays, junior high youth group on Thursdays, Sunday school in between worship services on Sunday mornings, and the occasional attempt at mid-week small groups (only to remember that families are too busy for that many programs on their calendars).
I was growing increasingly convinced that something needed to change. When youth group has become monotonous even to the youth pastor, you have a problem!
I met with my youth leadership team for a day-long retreat. We put everything on the table, no sacred cows allowed. If we were starting over from scratch, how would we do things? How could we more effectively help our students transition from visitors, to new converts, to growing disciples? How could we more effectively help our students grow roots in the church, not just in the youth ministry?
By the time we were on our way home that night, we decided on a very counterintuitive measure – to combine the junior high and high school youth groups.
We chose to do this in order to make space for a more intentional discipleship program. It would help provided a clearer transition from unbeliever to new believer to maturing believer. Since we only had the time and ability to sustain two programs (aside from Sunday school, which also functioned as our student Bible Study), we decided that the potential for fruitfulness under this new model would outweigh the challenge of putting the plan into action.
The first week of the “new youth group” went great. Attendance was way up. The energy was buzzing. I thought the message went well. Overall, students and leaders went home excited and optimistic about the changes.
Within a few weeks, problems started to pop up. As we sought feedback and input from students, it was clear that there were more issues than that first week indicated. Throughout the year, I worked with my team to make tweaks to the program, but I needed to acknowledge that our new youth group simply didn’t work out like we had hoped.
I was so misunderstood and frustrated I seriously considered throwing in the towel altogether. Maybe youth ministry isn’t for me anymore? Maybe they needed someone else? Perhaps it was time for me to move on.
Maybe I needed to trust God and pray. Maybe I needed to stop relying on my own knowledge and skills to make things work. Maybe I needed to ask for more help. I needed to remember that Christ, not the youth pastor, is the Lord of His church.
That was last year. I wish I could tell you that this year everything is perfect and students are being converted every week. They aren’t.
What I can tell you is this: God cares more about these students than I do (and I care a lot!).
I resisted the temptation to go back to our rut. Some people I trusted counseled me to just admit last year was a failure and a mistake. Cutting our losses and returning to what had “worked” for the last nine years would have been easy, but I just couldn’t do it.
This year we learned from last year’s experiment. While combining junior high and high school students in one youth group meeting isn’t ideal, with a limited number of youth workers we realized we could only effectively staff two programs. We chose to stay the course with one combined youth group, and to incorporate small groups. We refused to compromise on the vision God gave us to intentionally prioritize a discipleship pathway. Where small groups sputtered last year, this year they are healthy and students are growing. High school students have taken on more student-leadership roles: leading games, welcoming visitors, organizing events, and even taking turns teaching one of their Sunday school classes.
I can honestly say that this has been the strongest year of student discipleship in my tenure as youth pastor. If we didn’t make some gutsy and painful changes last year, and if we had accepted failure and gone back to what was familiar, none of this discipleship would be happening.
When God leads, we need to follow.
We don’t follow perfectly, of course. We are, after all, only “jars of clay.” In New Testament times, people stored their items in clay pots because they were cheap and easily made, not because they were fancy and ornate. They were the modern-day equivalent of the Styrofoam cup.
That’s what we are in this day and age: Styrofoam cups.
And God uses us to show His wisdom. As Paul wrote:
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Without acknowledging the unfathomable power of God, there’s simply no explanation for his working in our ministry. The only thing we can produce is thorny and rocky soil; our Father is the gardener who produces the fruit. Acknowledging this was the only way I could move forward after the first difficult year of transitions in my ministry.
Lead and Be Bold: God is at Work
I must constantly ask myself, “Where am I trusting God in my ministry?”
Conversely, where am I relying on my knowledge, wisdom, and ability instead of the Holy Spirit?
Here’s my two-cents after taking a risk that didn’t pay off at first: Where has God called you to lead? Go there! Don’t expect others to go where you are called. At the same time, don’t run out so far ahead that you’re on your own (remember, if you’re all alone, you aren’t actually leading). Cast vision. Build a team who fully believes in what you’re doing. If someone isn’t buying into where you’re heading, it will be easier to graciously release them for ministry elsewhere now, rather than waiting for conflict down the road.
God has not called us into ministry because we were too good to refuse. He has called us in order to show His power through our weakness. We shouldn’t be surprised when our true colors show, this is God’s way of keeping us humble and reminding us who’s really running the ministry.